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'West Side Story' review: Steven Spielberg has crafted a 'West Side Story' better than the '61 movie, a real Hollywood musical

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

Purists can relax, and put their smelling salts away. The vibrant new “West Side Story” hasn’t been updated, or relocated.

It’s still a resident of Upper West Side Manhattan in the late 1950s, in the vicinity of what used to be called Lincoln Square and San Juan Hill. But director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have made sharp, often arresting sense of original librettist Arthur Laurents’ material, born on Broadway in 1957. Jerome Robbins’ dances helped make the Broadway musical a prestige success; the score by Leonard Bernstein and a newcomer named Stephen Sondheim didn’t hurt, either. The 1961 movie, dutiful, square and pretty dull as cinema though full of performance felicities, took care of the smash-hit part of the show’s reputation.

In the ‘61 film, as with so many versions of “West Side Story” and “Romeo and Juliet” before it, the drips at the center of the story barely qualified as characters. They were, as Sondheim long contended, simply emblems of Young Love, or Love at First Sight. Character types. Not flesh-and-blood characters.

Whatever this new adaptation’s popular reception, it’s five times the movie the ‘61 movie was. Spielberg has never made a musical before, but this one looks and feels like the work of an Old Hollywood master of the form — someone who knows when, where and why to move a camera capturing bodies in rhythmic motion.

All through his career, whatever the genre, Spielberg has proven among the most rhythmically attuned of populist filmmakers, both in his shot design and in the editing room. Beyond the obvious stepping stones, notably the jitterbug brawl in “1941″: Remember the airport scene “Catch Me If You Can”? Where Leonardo DiCaprio and the stewardesses elude Tom Hanks and glide through checkpoint after checkpoint to the tune of Sinatra singing “Come Fly With Me”? That’s a musical number. Plain, simple, complex and beautiful. That’s how “West Side Story” feels, over and over, whatever your personal relationship (or resistance) to the material.

Kushner, who worked previously with Spielberg on “Munich” and “Lincoln” and some forthcoming projects including “The Fabelmans,” sets up the new “West Side Story” with two key questions. What is happening in this neighborhood, at this point in history? And to whom? After a series of overhead shots, echoing the ‘61 film’s opening, we’re dropped into what looks like dystopian science fiction. Rubble, dust, wrecking balls, no sign of urban life anywhere, especially to the west of this West Side story. Looming in close-up: a “coming soon” sign for the shiny new Lincoln Center project. The turf being fought over by the Jets and the Sharks, the whites and the Puerto Ricans, is on the verge of extinction. The phrase used in the new film early on, and often, is first uttered by Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll) as a two-word weapon: “slum clearance.”

 

In the ‘61 version, the first 15 to 20 minutes played like schoolyard pranks, with lettuce-throwing and the like. Here, someone gets his ear jabbed with a nail. Tony (Ansel Elgort) has a much harsher back story now, including a year in prison. Doc, the drugstore owner, has turned into Rita Moreno; the Oscar-winning Anita in the ‘61 film plays a substantial new character, Valentina, Doc’s widow.

Many song contexts have shifted, some with terrific results. “America,” no longer a nocturnal rooftop number, bursts into open-air, street-level sunshine and teeming multicultural (though not necessarily friendly) crowds, as led by the electric Ariana DeBose and ensemble. (I’d see the movie again just for this scene.)

I’m less sure about the new take on “Cool” (my favorite thing in the ‘61 version), which starts with an inspired notion — a game of keep-away with the gun that proves fateful a few scenes later — but gets mighty busy. Also, the relocation of “I Feel Pretty,” transformed into a gently mocking department store routine, now places Maria’s song after the story’s dark turn into serious bloodshed, which feels flatly ironic and wrong.

Damn, I guess that makes me some sort of purist! I hope not. Spielberg and Kushner certainly aren’t, but they are who they are, separately and together, because they look ahead while assessing what worked the first time with this material. The dance at the gym, including the lead-in and the outro, is a thing of combustible beauty, propelled by one dynamic, extended visual composition after another. Crucially, the love-at-first-sight meeting between Tony and Maria (Rachel Zegler, really good, opposite Elgort’s pretty-good Tony) takes place in the shadows of the bleachers. Kushner’s dialogue is sincere and just tart enough to make us buy the connection being made. If their part of the storyline putters here and there near the end, well, I’ve yet to see a “West Side Story” or a “Romeo and Juliet” on stage or screen that didn’t feel a little like that.

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